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Ancient script: Trinity academic translates dialogue to Babylonian for new Marvel movie Eternals

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Dr Martin Worthington in Trinity College library reading an ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablet. Photo: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Dr Martin Worthington in Trinity College library reading an ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablet. Photo: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Selma Hayek in the film 'Eternals'

Selma Hayek in the film 'Eternals'

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Dr Martin Worthington in Trinity College library reading an ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablet. Photo: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

A Trinity College academic has played a pivotal role in translating Babylonian dialogue for new Marvel movie Eternals.

The new superhero flick, starring Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek and Dubliner Barry Keoghan, is the first major film to feature characters speaking in Babylonian.

The ancient Iraqi language died out more than 2,000 years ago but translations into the long-dead language for the movie were provided by Dr Martin Worthington from Trinity College Dublin.

Dr Worthington specialises in the languages and civilisations of ancient Mesopotamia, including those of the Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians.

In the film, the ancient language is used by immortal heroes who reunite to defend humanity from monstrous creatures called the Deviants, when they speak to inhabitants of the ancient city of Babylon. Dr Worthington, an Assyriologist and author of the book Teach Yourself Complete Babylonianprovided written translations and audio recordings, which the actors practised with the film’s dialect coach.

“It was thrilling to create these translations and send them out into the ether for an actor to speak them aloud, imbue them with gestures, and bring them to life,” he said.

“Film is such a powerful medium, which can summon a past full of moving, breathing and talking people. Eternals will raise awareness of ancient Mesopotamia and its fascinating cultures, and I hope people will go on to explore them further.

“Thanks to over a century of scholarly work, we have built up a very good understanding of the structures and vocabulary of Babylonian as well as other languages of the ancient Middle East, such as Sumerian and Hittite.

“With patience and dedication, it is to some extent possible to ‘think in’ these ancient languages,” Dr Worthington added.

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In 2018, he directed the world’s first entirely Babylonian-language film, The Poor Man of Nippur.

One of the most challenging aspects of his work on the film was coming up with translations for everyday phrases such as “let me help you” or “wait a moment”. Because our understanding of Babylonian comes from written and often quite formal documents – mostly clay tablets  –  so much is still unknown about “chatty” uses of the language.

He explained that, generally, the more colloquial the English phrase, the harder it was to translate.

A really tough nut was the expression ‘thank you’.

“It is ubiquitous today, but as far as we know it was not used in ancient Mesopotamia, so I had to find workarounds – expressions such as “may the gods bless you” (ilū likrubūki to a woman, ilū likrubūka to a man),” he said.

The library at Trinity holds nine cuneiform tablets, which date from 2100BC onwards, and derive from the ancient region of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. Most of these artefacts were purchased between 1914 and 1927 by Robert Gwynn, Professor of Biblical Greek and Erasmus Professor of Hebrew in Trinity. They were first entered into the Library catalogue in 1966.
“I’m so pleased these translations were done by someone at Trinity College Dublin – the alma mater of Edward Hincks, the Irish Clergyman who through utter brilliance first deciphered Babylonian cuneiform back in the nineteenth century,” Dr Worthington said.


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